Shamanism is the practice of religious specialists who have been specially trained and initiated to go into trance and contact the spiritual world directly. The shaman is an important ﬁ xture of religious life in PRIMAL RELIGION, preliterate tribal cultures, and traditional societies of many parts of the world. The word shaman and classic examples come from Siberia and central Asia. But shamans can also be found throughout the Americas, where they have sometimes been called “medicine men,” in China, Korea, and Japan (where they are most often female), and elsewhere. Signiﬁ cant traces of shamanism can be seen in the background of most of the major religions of history.
One becomes a shaman in two ways: through heredity or special vocation. In the latter case, the prospective shaman often displays highly bizarre behavior, as though going mad; this is a sign the gods have singled out this person. The future shaman may go out into the wilderness until he or she sees a VISION or has another sign that a guiding spirit has come who then will help the novice control and use spiritual powers. The prospective adept next may seek training from a senior shaman. In Japan blind girls have sometimes become shamanesses. Shamans often have elaborate dress and accoutrements. They may wear robes and ornate hats, and beat drums to help them go into trance. Their performances may include dance and drama as they go about their two main duties, to speak to the gods and heal the sick.
There are two main kinds of shaman: “possession” shamans and “traveling” shamans. The former stay in one place, so to speak, in their ecstatic trance, but call down gods and spirits to possess them and speak through their lips. Such shamans can receive the spirits of the departed and so let their loved ones hear their voices again. They also communicate the instructions of gods, and do healings with the help of the gods who have entered them.
“Traveling” shamans are believed, in trance, to be able to ﬂ y through the air or dive into the Earth to visit the land of the dead, recover lost or stolen souls, or speak to the gods above. Sometimes these scenarios are quite dramatic public performances. The Altaic shaman would climb an upright tree trunk representing the way from Earth through the various heavenly spheres above. On each level the shaman would call down to the audience of his tribespeople, describing the particular paradisal realm he was now entering. Eskimo shamans, in a crowded but darkened room, would enact a vivid ritual, with sound effects, of going into the Earth to seek the central realm of their deities.
Shamans have often been associated with healing. Sickness was frequently believed to be caused by the loss of one’s soul. Shamans in North America’s Paciﬁ c northwest, in the presence of sick persons and the family, would dramatically enact their journey to the other world in search of the lost soul, including the crossing of treacherous rivers and combat with guardian demons. When they had found the strayed spirit, they would bear it back in triumph, singing its song. One can imagine how such a performance would revive and perhaps even heal the patient! Another view of sickness was that it was the result of invasion of the sick person by EVIL spirits. Other shamans would heal the sick by sucking out or driving out the malevolent entity. In any case, the shaman tends to diagnose and then treat the illness in terms compatible with the world view of his culture.
Shamanism also had a profound impact on the early development of human culture. One could say that shamans were the ﬁ rst physicians, psychologists, poets, and prophets. Shamanism also had a deep relationship with the beginnings of art and story, for the shamans created or used these in their costumes and performances to a greater degree than anyone else. They could also serve as magicians and priests, and custodians of tribal lore. To be sure, shamans have sometimes been sleightof-hand artists, resorting to trickery to achieve their effects. Yet, all in all, they greatly expanded the horizons of human experience and ability.
The rise of science, modern medicine, electronic communication, and global business has not meant the end of shamanism; it has produced new forms of shamanism instead. In a country with a strong shamanistic tradition like Korea, shamanism continues to thrive, but the concerns of the people who seek a shaman’s assistance have changed. Formerly people sought healing. Today they are just as likely, or more likely, to seek help and advice in uncertain business dealings.
In North America and Europe, a different approach to shamanism has arisen, sometimes called “neoshamanism.” More critical of capitalism and business practices, it provides an alternative sense of meaning in the modern world for people who ﬁ nd traditional JUDAISM and CHRISTIANITY no longer effective.
Starting in the 1960s North Americans and Europeans began to take a great deal of interest in anthropology. In the process they discovered shamanism. An early, inﬂ uential popularizer of shamanism was Carlos Castaneda (1925–98). The most inﬂ uential such anthropologist today may be Michael Harner (b. 1929).
Neo-shamanism uses rhythmic techniques such as drumming and dancing to induce special mental states. (Some have suggested that the electronic dance music known as techno that is played at raves has this effect, too.) Practitioners believe that in these states they come into contact with the spirit world or more broadly with the whole world of nature. Their spirit helpers, along with the knowledge of plants and crystals that they have learned in their altered states, give them the ability to heal. Some movements calling themselves shamanic make use of a wide range of healing techniques, such as aromatherapy, rain drop therapy, and Reiki (a healing practice based on touch) as well as shamanic journeying and soul retrieval.
Neoshamanism rejects sharp boundaries between human beings and animals and often seeks to restore wholeness on a cosmic as well as an individual level. In this respect it has a strong ecological character.
Modern medicine attributes whatever healing beneﬁ ts neoshamanic practices have to psychological factors. Many medical professionals are also suspicious that many claims about healing are unproved and overstated. At the same time, a patient’s psychological state does contribute to healing, and shamanic techniques may have some demonstrable positive effects.